Last night I joined at least 111 million other Americans in watching the Super Bowl. Despite years of indifference to organized sports in general and professional sports in particular, I managed to follow the game’s drama, especially in the fourth quarter. I marveled at the athleticism on display, and I paid close attention during the ads that popped up every five minutes or so throughout the evening. Cars, phones, games, food, and oh yes, and puppies and beer —these 30-second messages covered the essentials of every consumer’s life.
The NFL has been embroiled in various scandals surrounding abuse and disregard for players’ welfare, but none of that drama made it onto national television. It was just old-timer (at age 37) Tom Brady, honorable and humble and victorious. Katy Perry, the halftime act, did nothing to inspire controversy either. Other than one unfortunate insurance spot, the ads were more of the same—cute, funny, mostly earnest plays on our heartstrings.
Football brings Americans together. It puts on a good and inspiring show. And yet we all lose as our culture transitions from religion as a national pastime to sports and entertainment.
The past 60 years have seen a steady decline in religiosity among Americans as well as a decline in church attendance. The Super Bowl has steadily increased in viewers. But it’s not just one Sunday evening a year that we turn our attention (and adoration) toward this hallmark of athletics and entertainment. Throughout the rest of the year, Sunday mornings are handed over to soccer games and birthday parties. Screens and instant communication replace substance every day.
I’ve heard it was Viktor Frankl who contradicted Freud and said that pleasure is not our greatest pursuit. According to Frankl, our greatest need and desire is for meaning. Only when we believe meaning is an impossible pursuit do we turn to pleasure. I have to wonder whether our culture has done exactly that—turned from a search for meaning to the pursuit of pleasure. And I have to wonder whether the Super Bowl epitomizes that transition. Underneath the busy schedules and pretty, orderly images, I wonder whether many Americans ignore a pervading sense of emptiness. I wonder if we are afraid to admit our desire for something more, whether we are afraid to scratch beneath the surface in case it exposes a deep dark hole.
I don’t mean to suggest that we have lost a golden era or that we have replaced piety with debauchery. Plenty of people who sat in the pews in the past did so more out of social convention than theological interest. There’s always been hypocrisy within the church, and plenty of people have left for good reasons. And yet I have to believe that when church was our national pastime, it offered a greater possibility of personal and social transformation than our current driving cultural forces ever can.
Last night, I was inspired by ads showing the potential of kids and adults with disabilities and the significance of fathers in children’s lives. Even the humorous depiction of God’s phone losing battery power and the world upended prompted some reflection. This event itself was fun and competitive and great. But that’s all it was. Inspirational. Something that felt good and unifying and celebratory for a few hours.
For many people, a church experience is similar. There’s some entertainment. Some short nuggets of wisdom to chew on. Some inspirational messages. But the possibility for transformation still remains—through the prayers of the people, the bread and the wine, the reading of the Word. God’s presence makes transformation possible, week after week after week.
I was reading Genesis 1 not long ago, and I was struck by the image of the Spirit of God hovering over the empty, dark void before God’s creative act commenced. God is present in the empty, dark void. God is present even in the space that seems meaningless, even in the darkness that we are afraid to confront. And from that empty, dark void, “Let there be light!”
If Frankl was right, and people pursue pleasure only after meaning is lost, perhaps Christians need to invite others to know a God who offers meaning and purpose even in the midst of suffering, a God who promises more than inspiration and more than a short-term pick me up. Perhaps Christians need to gently move into that fearful, empty darkness underneath the busyness of so many of our lives, and then testify to the fact that God is present in the darkness. Present, and good, and exclaiming, “Let there be light!”